Years ago I took a trip to the East Coast and stopped at the homes of some of my favorite authors. Thoreau’s Walden Pond, Emerson’s home in Concord, Longfellow’s home in Cambridge, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s childhood home and his House of Seven Gables in Salem. One of my favorites among the homes of these literary giants was the farm homestead of John Greenlief Whittier at Haverhill, Massachusetts. A lone caretaker took us through the house and we saw the same fireplace where the family gathered in Whittier’s nostalgic poem, “Snowbound.”
That poem has always been one of my favorites and I often think of it at Christmas time. When Whittier published it in 1866, the Industrial Age was quickly changing the rural nature of life, and Whittier’s description of his family was a testament to that way of life.
In “Snowbound,” he describes a colossal storm that imprisons the family in their farmhouse for a whole week. It begins, “The sun that brief December day/Rose cheerless over hills of gray,/and, darkly circled, gave at noon/A sadder light than waning moon.” Whittier describes the snow piling up all day, making strange castles and transforming the shapes of familiar things in the yard. And that evening the family gathers around the fireplace and tells stories, and the adults describe the lessons learned in their youth. Whittier writes, “What matter how the night behaved?/What matter how the north-wind raved?/Blow high, blow low, not all its snow/Could quench our hearth-fire’s ruddy glow.”
Growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s when storms could indeed stop life for days at a time, I remember evenings when my family stayed home together and drank hot chocolate, ate sandwiches, and popped popcorn. Instead of telling stories we might have watched “Gunsmoke” or “Your Hit Parade” together as a family. The wind could be whistling at the windows and the snow could be filling up the streets and sidewalks. We were warm and cozy and together.
The same was true on Christmas morning. We gathered at my aunt’s home because it was the largest: grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and my brothers and I all opened presents and then ate a huge breakfast. The night before we had gone to late church and sung in Christmas with the usual carols.
Since my dad managed the Drive-In Theatre in town, one of the projectionists would stop over on Christmas morning and take film of all of us opening our presents. Eventually, we were each given copies of those spliced films of many years, leaving us a wonderful set of images of the past. Then, as time went by and technology changed, the films were turned into VHS tapes. (It’s time for me to move them on to DVDs before I have to skip that step to whatever’s next.) But regardless of the medium, they contain priceless memories of times and people who are no longer with us. And they illustrate another time gone by that has changed with the advent of technology and the loss of nuclear families.
Whittier, too, lamented those losses when he wrote, “O Time and Change!– with hair as gray/As was my sire’s that winter day,/How strange it seems, with so much gone/ Of life and love, to still live on!/ Ah, brother! Only I and thou/Are left of all that circle now,–The dear home faces whereupon/That fitful firelight paled and shone./”
A reader could look at this nostalgic poem as a sad ode to death, but it has too many joyful, childhood passages about being young. And as to the deaths of his family members, Whittier explains that he plans to see those people once again, including his little sister whom he dearly loved. He remembers those times fondly and, even though the times were much less sophisticated than now, he points out the value of a simpler way of life, his belief in a life after death where he will be reunited with his family, and the enduring power of love.
Each Christmas I like to take the opportunity to look back at my family videos and remember, too, the love of my family and the days when I was very young. True to their natures, my older brother is teasing me in most of the Christmas film footage, and my younger brother is following me around. While times and culture have changed since the early days of Whittier’s life, the eternal themes of Christmas, family, and love have not.